Risk and Vulnerability

vulnerability-quoteWhat is the riskiest thing you’ve ever done? Jump out of an airplane? Travel abroad alone? Leave a job or relationship that wasn’t working? Start a business? Pursue a dream? Something else?

For me, it was to put my uncensored writing out there for others to see – and to criticize. I thought I would be safe when I signed up for a creative nonfiction writing course, with a small group of adults who had a passion for the craft. Our instructor set clear ground rules, one of which was to critique the writing, not the writer. This rule gave me the courage to share my work without censuring myself, for the first time ever.

So imagine my shock when, during a group critique of one of my essays, a classmate said, “I can’t imagine writing that about my [insert very close relation].” A pair of middle-aged women (I was in my early 30s at the time) nodded their heads in agreement as they whispered to each other and sent me disapproving glances. I looked to my instructor to correct them, remind them of the ground rules, but she didn’t. I felt betrayed by my classmates and by her. Worse, I felt like a naughty little girl who had done something very wrong.

After that class, I went back to writing in the closet for years and stuck mostly with fiction. Fiction felt safe because the characters weren’t real people and the stories came from my imagination. For a while, I also wrote feel-good news stories for a local newspaper. Then I started blogging, where I walk a fine line between speaking my uncensored truth and carefully choosing my language so as not to offend others or incite their  wrath. All low-risk writing.

Recently, I was reminded of how vulnerable we are when we put ourselves out there in any way, whether it’s speaking our truth, sharing our art, making decisions others don’t understand or approve of, or bucking society norms and/or traditions to follow our dreams or live more authentically. We open ourselves up to all kinds of judgement and criticism from others, some constructive and well-meaning, some downright mean. Sometimes it is the silence of indifference that hurts the most.

Risk-taking requires courage in the face of fear; it also  requires the willingness to be vulnerable. There is always a chance that we might be harmed, whether emotionally, financially, physically or in some other way.  But if we want to step out of our comfort zones and grow, if we want to pursue goals and dreams, if we want success that goes beyond the ordinary kind, or if we simply want to share our art in the most authentic way possible, we must take risks. That almost always leaves us vulnerable.

Have you ever felt truly vulnerable? I went through a brief period where someone had hurt me deeply, and as a result I felt incredibly vulnerable. It was as if every armor and shield of self-protection I had ever worn was ripped away, leaving me raw and exposed. Instead of fighting the feeling, I gave into it and an odd thing happened; I started to like it.  The softness of it felt light, and it carried a beauty and authenticity I hadn’t experienced before.  I was enveloped in a sense of peace and contentedness. Then after a couple of days, the outer shell started to harden again and the feeling went away, though I never forgot it.

Next time you’re wrestling with whether or not to take a risk, I encourage you to move beyond courage and embrace vulnerability.

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